Behind the scenes on election night: Anxious moments at the Murray, Gillingham campaigns

A year after Shelly Glover narrowly lost the race to become Manitoba’s next premier, two of her campaign officials found themselves on opposite ends of a delicate phone call that would determine the final moments of Winnipeg’s mayoral race.

On Oct. 30, 2021, Destiny Watt and Braydon Mazurkiewich were poring over the Progressive Conservative party leadership ballots on behalf of Glover at Winnipeg’s Victoria Inn. Heather Stefanson ended up winning that contest over Glover by 363 votes.

On Oct. 26 of this year — municipal election night in Winnipeg — Watt served as the election-day chair for Scott Gillingham’s mayoral campaign, while Mazurkiewich worked as a senior member of the Glen Murray campaign’s marketing team.

Through the final months of the Winnipeg mayoral race, when Murray and Gillingham emerged as the two main contenders, Watt and Mazurkiewich remained friends.

By election night, the two former Gloverites formed one of the few reliable lines of communication between the two competing Winnipeg mayoral camps.

That connection proved to be crucial during the awkward minutes after Murray walked into the Provencher Room in the Fort Garry Hotel, the site of his campaign party, without taking the stage to concede an election officials in both camps already concluded Gillingham had won.

With clenched fists, Glen Murray walks into the Provencher Room at the Fort Garry Hotel to deliver a concession speech to dejected supporters. (James Turner/CBC)

Murray entered the Provencher Room at 9:45 p.m. on Wednesday and started walking around the main-floor ballroom, a venue that has hosted thousands of weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations over the decades. Eleven minutes later, he was still circulating through the room, embracing and shaking hands with supporters.

That’s when Watt got on the phone with Mazurkiewich, trying to figure out when Murray would deliver a concession speech — and whether that would happen before Gillingham delivered a victory address.

“I was trying to get a sense of when things would happen,” Watt recalled.

Standing near the entrance to the Provencher Room, Mazurkiewich was assuring his friend at 9:56 p.m. he would find Murray and get him onto the Provencher Room stage.

He got some help at 9:58 p.m., when the City of Winnipeg’s election site posted a final Gillingham margin of victory of  4,391 votes.

A slow-burn campaign strategy

From the initial days of Winnipeg’s mayoral race, Gillingham’s team was eager if not desperate to present its candidate as a front-runner in a campaign they were certain would eventually include Murray, a far more well-known and far more charismatic candidate.

Gillingham policy advisor Brian Kelcey said the team made an early 2022 decision not to attempt to distance the two-term St. James councillor from outgoing Mayor Brian Bowman.

Gillingham would have to wear any residual Bowman baggage, as it became obvious there could be no credible separation between the two close council allies and fellow Progressive Conservatives, said Kelcey.

Gillingham campaign worker Shannon Sampert, right, watches the election results come in. (Mike Fazio/CBC)

Gillingham campaign manager Luc Lewandoski described this as one of four crucial decisions during the six-month mayoral campaign.

The second arrived in early August, after a Probe Research poll of voter intentions suggested Murray had a massive lead and a second high-profile conservative candidate, Charleswood-Westwood-Tuxedo Coun. Kevin Klein, also entered the race.

Klein made it clear he was going to focus his campaign on crime. Murray presented himself as an urban visionary, while upstart candidate Shaun Loney portrayed himself as the best candidate to tackle homelessness and other complex social problems.

Lewandoski said this left Gillingham with one last policy lane to try to exploit: infrastructure renewal, which only ranked No. 3 among the issues most important to Winnipeg voters, after crime and homelessness.

The campaign spent an entire week in early September announcing and re-announcing infrastructure plans. But this didn’t make Gillingham more popular, as a second Probe Research poll in late September demonstrated.

Gillingham then did something crucial, in the eyes of his campaign. On Oct. 4, the candidate promised to raise property taxes and boost frontage levies.

“I think that was a pivotal decision,” said Lewandoski, adding he was trying to establish the councillor as a fiscally responsible candidate with a credible plan, especially among voters who might be wary of a conservative.

“By embracing [the tax hike] and being upfront with voters about it, we felt that opened up our voter pool quite significantly.”

Scott Gillingham delivers his victory speech at the Clarion Hotel. (Mike Fazio/CBC)

The tax-hike announcement also gave Gillingham ammunition to criticize Murray’s financial policy, which was unstated until the former mayor promised a tax freeze.

The final important Gillingham move arrived on Oct. 13, when his campaign decided to distribute a Leger poll they had commissioned. That poll suggested Murray had lost some popular support after Sept. 29, when CBC News published an investigation into the year the candidate spent at the Pembina Institute.

“We knew there was movement, and we needed voters to know there was movement,” Lewandoski said. “We could show that not only was there support eroding from Mr. Murray from his peak, but that Scott continued to be the strongest second-choice option.”

Uncertainty on election day

Lewandoski said he only saw evidence more voters were gravitating toward Gillingham during the final 10 days of the campaign.

“The green shoots of success were starting to emerge early last week,” he said, nonetheless insisting he did not know what would happen on election day.

Operating under the expectation Murray would do better at inner-city polls, which are disclosed more quickly by city hall, Lewandoski said he decided to place most of his scrutineers at suburban polls.

He said the intelligence these scrutineers provided gave him confidence Gillingham would erase an early election-night deficit. During the first 30 minutes after polls closed at 8 p.m., Murray built up a lead on the strength of advance polls as well as early reporting polls from downtown-adjacent wards.

A breakdown of the poll-by-poll vote result shows Gillingham did especially well in vote-rich wards such as Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood, River Heights-Fort Garry, St. Norbert-Seine River and North Kildonan, while Murray was stronger in Daniel McIntyre, Mynarski and Point Douglas, where voter turnout is historically lower.

At 8:51 p.m, the City of Winnipeg website indicated Murray had an 800-vote lead over Gillingham, with 107 out of 251 polls reporting.

CTV News chose that minute to mistakenly declare Murray the election winner, prompting celebrations in the Provencher Room at the Fort Garry Hotel.

Tom DeNardi, centre, and other Glen Murray supporters react to an erroneous report of the candidate’s victory early on Winnipeg municipal election night. (James Turner/CBC)

Over at the Clarion Hotel, where Gillingham was holding a campaign party, Lewandoski urged supporters to remain calm.

“Even during that moment when the the other network called it, we felt pretty confident that we liked the numbers we were seeing and felt that we were tracking toward a victory,” he said.

Five minutes after CTV declared Murray the victor, at 8:56 p.m., Gillingham took the lead by 130 votes. By 9:09 p.m., with only six polls left to report, Gillingham was up over Murray by 4,200 votes.

At that point, the election was effectively over. But there was only confusion at the Fort Garry Hotel, where Murray supporters tried to reconcile their initial elation with the numbers they now saw on their phones.

At 9:21, Mazurkiewich decided he had seen enough. 

“Congratulations to Mayor Scott Gillingham on a hard-fought win,” he tweeted.

Murray supporters at the Fort Garry Hotel look to their phones for signs of hope after learning Gillingham was in the lead. (James Turner/CBC)

At 9:45 p.m. Murray walked into the Provencher Room to make his rounds. Watt and Mazurkiewich negotiated their candidates’ respective speeches 11 minutes later. 

Murray made his concession address at 10:01 p.m., declaring he briefly felt what it was like to win. Gillingham took the stage as mayor-elect nine minutes after that.

Unlike last year, when Glover disputed Stefanson’s victory, there would be no quibbling after the fact.